A corny title – but a cool nerve. The 10th of the cranial nerves, it is often called the “Nerve of compassion” because when it’s active, it helps create the “warm-fuzzies” that we feel in our chest when we get a hug or are moved by a chick-flick.
The vagus nerve is really a bundle of nerves that originates at the top of the spinal cord and enervates all sorts of organs. Here’s a picture:
That first little offshoot stimulates certain muscles in the vocal chamber, facilitating communication. The fourth reduces heart rate and there’s some new scientific findings that are suggesting that the vagus nerve might be closely connected to receptor networks for oxytocin – the feel good hormone/neurotransmitter of parenthood, hugs and bonding.
You can see from this diagram that the vagus nerve branches off to everything from the neck down to the colon. Its fibers are parasympathetic – the relaxing side of the nervous system (that’s somewhat simplistic, but, in general, a useful, lay person’s way to understand the nervous system is sympathetic = fight or flight, parasympathetic = rest and digest). So the vagus nerve can be related to heart rate, digestion and even skeletal muscles.
Pretty easy to see how even the simplest yoga routine would stimulate lots of branches of this nerve. For years I have heard teachers talk about how yoga benefits the vagus nerve – from shoulderstand and down dog to chanting and pranayama – Yoga is a virtual celebration of the vagus nerve – a practice of viva las vagus!
But here’s something even cooler – the research that Dacher Ketlner, director of the Social Interaction Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley is doing shows that stimulating that vagus nerve is not only good for you – it’s good for the planet!
“Our research and that of other scientists suggest that activation of the vagus nerve is associated with feelings of caretaking and the ethical intuition that humans from different social groups (even adversarial ones) share a common humanity. People who have high vagus nerve activation in a resting state, we have found, are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism – compassion, gratitude, love and happiness.”
There you go. Do it for love.